Astia: Knocking Down the Hurdles for Women-Led Startups

2/9/11Follow @wroush

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develop the executive leadership skills of the women on the companies’ founding teams. In each area, Vosmek says, the market has “hidden hurdles or unique hurdles for women-led companies.”

In the area of leadership, for example, women entrepreneurs often need help developing a sense of personal confidence that’s separate from whether their businesses are succeeding or failing. Men, it seems, are more easily able to shrug off failure, or at least project fearlessness. “Where there is a huge gender difference in the market is that men will fail along the way and find personal success in that business failure,” Vosmek says. “If they raise $20 million and their business doesn’t go anywhere, they can go back to the same investor and still raise money. We make sure that women carve out that kind of personal success on their business journey.”

Companies are screened for Astia by a committee of 10 to 20 entrepreneurs and investors, many of whom previously participated in Astia. Those invited to join are asked to pay a $5,000 participation fee and to donate a 1 percent equity stake. The fee used to be lower, but Vosmek discovered that the more Astia charged, the higher the caliber of the companies that applied. “When we charged enough, people really showed up and were really committed to it, and their success rate really took off,” she says.

The fees, by the way, provide about a third of Astia’s revenue. Another third comes from corporate sponsorships from the likes of AOL, Microsoft, and the law firm Fenwick & West. The final third comes from philanthropic donations; the Kauffman Foundation is a major donor. (With support from those organizations and a few more—the Althea Foundation, Moss Adams, and Silicon Valley Bank—Astia committed last week, as part of the White House’s Startup America initiative, to double the number of entrepreneurs it serves every year.)

The formal Astia program begins with a rigorous, week-long indoctrination program focused on both company-building and networking skills. “I hate the phrase boot camp, but that’s what it is,” Vosmek says. All sessions are led by experienced entrepreneurs from Astia’s network. The main point of the week is to build relationships.

After that, each company gets paired with a quartet of advisors: an investor, an experienced executive, a technologist, and a legal, accounting, or sales expert, depending on the company’s needs. For the next two months, the companies stay in constant touch with their advisors, who are also expected to call on their wider networks to help the companies make key connections. “We call them ‘advisors’ rather than ‘mentors’ because they certainly teach, but we also expect them to open doors to their networks, invest in the companies if appropriate, and do business with the companies,” Vosmek says.

The program ends with an investor forum where companies make pitches before an audience of venture and individual investors—the equivalent of “Demo Day” at incubators like TechStars or Y Combinator. Then the companies go their own way. “But the exciting thing is that the relationship goes on for the life of the company,” says Vosmek. “We appoint ambassadors, again volunteers from the community, who check in monthly and find out … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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